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Supreme Court justices seem skeptical of Bridgegate prosecution

Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Several Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism Tuesday that onetime allies of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had committed federal crimes in the political revenge plot known as Bridgegate.

Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, his top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty in 2016 by a federal jury of charges including conspiracy and fraud.

The charges stemmed from their involvement in a 2013 scheme to reduce the number of access lanes available in Fort Lee, N.J., to commuters approaching the George Washington Bridge from three to one, gridlocking traffic in the town for days.

Their goal was to punish the town's mayor for his refusal to endorse Christie's reelection campaign, according to evidence from the trial. In order to execute the scheme, the jury found, the defendants and Wildstein created a bogus story that they were conducting a traffic study.

One of the central questions before the high court Tuesday was whether Kelly and Baroni had defrauded the government by misusing the resources of a federally funded agency.

Some of the justices seemed sympathetic to the defense on that issue. Even if Kelly and Baroni "commandeered the lanes" for their desired ends, the roads were "still being used for public purposes," Chief Justice John Roberts said during an hourlong oral argument.

 

In addition, Roberts added, the "object" of the scheme wasn't to realign the lanes -- it was to "cause traffic jams."

In this view, some of the justices suggested, it's hard to see how the government was "deprived" of its property, as the jury found.

The court also questioned the government's contention that Baroni lacked the authority to realign the lanes. At trial, prosecutors alleged that the defendants promoted the sham traffic study as a means to trick career Port Authority officials to carry out the scheme. Through this deception, prosecutors alleged, Kelly and Baroni were able to hijack Port Authority resources for their illegitimate plot.

It was that lie about the traffic study that triggered the federal fraud statute, Eric J. Feigin, an attorney for the government, told the court Tuesday. He said the deception showed that the defendants couldn't otherwise implement their plan.

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